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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Money and Wealth - How leaders can level up their productivity game

Money and Wealth

How leaders can level up their productivity game

David Gray

Make no mistake – productivity is a leadership issue. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, I work with many leaders who only see productivity, or the need to increase productivity, as an issue to be resolved for their team, not necessarily for them personally.

They convince themselves that they are organized enough, and they are way too busy to take time out for training or other productivity-enhancing initiatives. But I reckon this could be a mistake.

A friend of mine, Cameron Schwab, who spent many years working in AFL football administration, told me that he reckons a lot of footy players believe they are elite because they play at the highest level. But in his opinion, he reckons most teams would be lucky to have two or three players that could truly call themselves elite.

I think the same is true with productivity at the leadership level. Most leaders are reasonably well organized, their systems are good enough, and their productivity levels are acceptable. But they are rarely elite. They fall into the same traps of busyness, reactivity, disorganization, and distraction as the rest of their teams.

To get to an elite level of productivity, most people need to jump at least one, if not more, level. This might seem daunting to you. After possibly years of working your way up to the leadership level, organizing yourself the best way you could in each role, the question is: can you go to the next level when it comes to your personal productivity?

Can you go to the elite level? 

The next level is more than implementing a few strategies that may only last a few months. The next level suggests a complete re-engineering of your operating system, a reinvention of the way you work, and the way you interface with your team. What would that take? What would that look like? Is that even possible?

One of my favorite recording artists is the UK singer/songwriter David Gray. I first heard David Gray sing at midnight on 1 January 2000, literally the minute we turned over into a new millennium! I distinctly remember being back in Ireland on a holiday, at a millennium party at my brother’s house. As everyone else watched the fireworks in the distance from the garden, I wandered into the living room, where a millennium concert was playing on TV. I saw this guy I had never heard of playing his hit ‘Babylon’, and was blown away.

His backstory is amazing, and a great example of someone levelling up. By 1998, he had released three mildly successful albums but was struggling to cut through in a time when grunge ruled, and singer/songwriters were not in fashion. He got to a point where he had very little money and was considering giving it all up and getting a real job.

But he looked deep inside and asked himself if he could write a better song, write a better album. He gave it one last shot, this time striving to go to the next level. He and his band locked themselves away in his small London terrace and wrote the album White Ladder. In fact, most of the album was recorded in his bedroom on basic equipment.

They had 5,000 CDs pressed and took a punt on releasing the album in Ireland, where he had a bit of a following. It was a slow burn, but eventually, the album took off, got some airplay in the US, and became a worldwide hit, selling over 7 million copies. It was definitely ‘next level’, and set David Gray on the path to success, as well as inspiring many singer-songwriters to follow in his footsteps.

I can only imagine that to go to the next level like that, Gray needed to not only learn a new way of writing but actually undo his old way of writing. He would have had to examine everything that he believed about the art of songwriting and work out what served him and what did not. He would have had to get really clear about what the next level looked like and work out the blockages that were in his way of getting there.

I believe that we need to go through the same cleansing fire to achieve the next level with our productivity. Most of us have been working for years without thinking too hard about how we organized ourselves. We created bad habits that did not serve us, and were unaware of better habits that could revolutionize how we worked.

There are three areas that leaders need to focus on to go to the elite level of productivity. The first would be to look at yourself as an individual and look for ways to be personally more productive. This involves everything from the highly practical and tactical, like how you organize your email, how you manage your priorities, and how you plan and prioritize. But the biggest level-up when it comes to personal productivity at the leadership level is usually to create a less compressed schedule.

Most leaders I have ever worked with fill their schedules with way too many meetings and do not protect enough time during core working hours for other important work, like time for priorities, time to process emails, time to plan, time to think, and time to simply be available to your team.

If you look at the inside of a kettle, it will usually have a mark that signifies the max level – do not fill above this line. I reckon our schedules should have the same warning! Make a decision about what your max level is for meetings, and try not to fill your schedule above this line. I personally aim for a 50/50 balance between meetings and other work in my week, but you may decide on a different ratio. Maybe your role requires you to spend 60-70% of your time in meetings. But you should be protecting at least 30% of your time for your other work. If not, how can you operate at an elite level?

The second focus should be your team. What is your role as a leader in helping them to be more productive? How can you remove some of the friction that is getting in the way of them doing their best work? In my second book, Smart Teams, I talked about how productivity cultures can have a massive impact on productivity. You and your team are working in a communication culture that may be killing productivity because of the high levels of email noise. Likewise, your meeting culture, your collaboration culture, and your urgency culture may be having a negative impact.

A part of your role as a leader is to build productive cultures that create flow rather than friction. This takes time, energy, and focus, but what better use of a leader’s time, energy, and focus than increasing the capacity of their team?

The final focus for elite-level productivity is the interface between yourself and your team. Just as the Hippocratic oath, which all doctors and surgeons commit to, directs that they ‘do no harm’, I believe that as leaders, we need to ensure that whenever we interface with our team, we do no harm, and do not become the ones creating productivity friction. Likewise, we need to ensure that they are not causing productivity friction for us.

This means we need to examine every situation where we interface with our team and make sure it is streamlined, effective, and productive for all involved. How productive are your one-on-ones? How productively do you delegate work? How much unnecessary friction do your team meetings create? Are you available to your team as they need, or are you always in meetings and never around? (See the previous point).

Productivity is definitely a leadership issue and deserves our time, energy, and focus. Elite levels of productivity are not attained through a book we once read or a training program we attended. Elite-level productivity requires a constant focus, and regular practice and discussion, which over time will lead to a more sustained increase in productivity for you and your team. I think this is worth the effort, even if you are busy. Maybe the fact that you are so busy is the reason you should take this approach!


Written by Dermot Crowley.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Money and Wealth - How leaders can level up their productivity game
Dermot Crowley
Dermot Crowley is one of Australia's leading thought leaders on personal and team productivity. He is the director of Adapt Productivity, a Sydney-based training organization, and has spent over 25 years working in the productivity space, both in Australia and globally. He has written four books, all published by Wiley – Smart Work, Smart Teams, Urgent! and his latest book, Lead Smart. Dermot's team work across organizations, enhancing productivity for managers and staff, while Dermot focuses his efforts on working with leadership teams on elite productivity.


Dermot Crowley is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn, for more information.